- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

Majority Leader Bill Frist, frustrated by the sluggish debate over immigration reform at the committee level, plans to introduce a bill that deals solely with border security as early as today.

Mr. Frist’s bill, according to aides on both sides of the aisle, does not include a guest-worker provision or a process for handling the 12 million illegal aliens already in the U.S., divisive topics that have stalled immigration legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill would beef up security along the U.S.-Mexico border, provide funding for thousands more Border Patrol agents and build short sections of fencing in key traffic areas.

However, the bipartisan majority in the Senate that also supports some form of a guest-worker program could still try to put it in Mr. Frist’s bill.

The Tennessee Republican, who is widely thought to be seeking the Republican nomination for president, had promised conservatives that he would bring up an enforcement-only bill and begin debate on the topic on the Senate floor before the end of this month.

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson declined to comment on any plans except to say that the Senate will “definitely” take up immigration reform March 27.

But to do so, the Senate Judiciary Committee would need to complete its work before next week’s St. Patrick’s Day recess, a prospect that seems increasingly unlikely. After three weeks of debating a proposal by Chairman Arlen Specter, the committee is still haggling over the easy details that were supposed to be completed right away.

The only other way to have a bill ready by month’s end would be for Mr. Frist to introduce his own bill immediately onto the floor.

Judiciary members on both sides, however, cautioned Mr. Frist not to bypass them.

“The majority leader is wrong,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “It’s impossible to build a political consensus in that time. We need time. We need time to talk.”

In a letter to Mr. Frist yesterday, Mrs. Feinstein and two other Judiciary Democrats pleaded for the majority leader to remain on the sidelines.

“The Judiciary Committee has unique expertise on immigration law and, under the leadership of Chairman Specter, is working diligently to mark up a comprehensive immigration reform bill,” wrote Mrs. Feinstein and Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. “The Senate would be well-served by the benefit of a complete committee markup, even if a brief extension of time is required to produce one.”

Republicans also warned against hasty action during the panel’s meeting yesterday.

“This is a very complicated bill, and I think we have to get it done right,” Mr. Specter said. Added Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, “I think it would be March madness to rush this.”

Republican aides say the move by Mr. Frist is not meant to trump the similar legislation offered by Mr. Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, but rather as an “insurance policy” to ensure that the topic is addressed before the end of the month.

According to aides, Mr. Frist’s bill would simply take Mr. Specter’s proposal and strip out the guest-worker plan and provisions dealing with illegal aliens in the U.S.

Mr. Specter’s legislation has stalled in committee over his proposal to make illegal entry into the U.S. a felony as well as other issues. His bill would allow employed illegal aliens to remain in the United States indefinitely, although it would require them to return home before applying for permanent citizenship.

According to aides familiar with his plans, Mr. Frist will use the rarely employed rule that permits him to introduce a bill and bypass the committee process so that it goes directly onto the Senate calendar. After winding through several days of parliamentary procedures, Mr. Frist may call that bill to the floor for debate.

Once on the Senate floor, Democrats and Republicans could add a guest-worker program if they all agreed on one of the several that have been proposed. But any such program would have to be reconciled with the bill approved in December by the House, where conservatives are adamant that the borders should be secured before any guest-worker bill is considered.

“Nobody in the country trusts us on this issue right now because we have not demonstrated the integrity to control our borders,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, during yesterday’s Judiciary meeting.

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